A million young Chinook salmon started making their way to the Pacific Ocean Monday. This group was among the evacuees from the Oroville Dam Spillway incident and received an enthusiastic sendoff.
In the early morning hours, employees pumped the spring-run Chinook into four large tanker trucks at the Thermalito Annex Hatchery north of Gridley. They were driven 30 miles down Highway 99 and then released into the Feather River, south of Yuba City.
The spring-run Chinook are on state and federal threatened species lists.
That same morning, a group of school kids was also releasing fish into the river. Amy Edwards is a teacher at Yes Charter Academy in Oregon House. She says her third and fourth-grade classes have been rearing 25 juvenile Steelheads for the past several weeks.
"We've had a big focus on [the] watershed and how ... where we live in the watershed affects everything around us," says Edwards. "How all of it is kind of connected."
While the kids chanted, "Run, fish, run," employees from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife released the salmon.
Amanda Cranford with National Marine Fisheries Service says now is a good time to release the fish.
"Right now, we've got pretty decent flows coming down the Feather River," says Cranford. "We have some degree of turbidity, which helps these fish avoid predation as they move downstream. The higher flows encourage migration out to the ocean."
Andrew Hughan with Fish and Wildlife says about 1 percent of the fish will return from the ocean and into the river system.
"The biologists will look at everything: river conditions, weather, condition of the fish and health of the fish to figure out when we're gonna release the rest of the spring-run," says Hughan.
Five weeks ago, these spring-run Chinook salmon had been at the Feather River Hatchery in Oroville. They were moved there after Lake Oroville overtopped its emergency spillway and clouded the river.
Hughan said those conditions would not have supported the fish. He described it as "Willy Wonka" water.
"There's not enough oxygen, not enough nutrients, not enough food in the water to support the fish," he says. "We had to get all hands on deck .... to try and save as many fish as we can."
It will take the young salmon two to three weeks to reach the ocean. Another million spring-run Chinook will be released in the coming weeks. The annex hatchery holds three million fall-run Chinook. About four million fall-run Chinook are still at the Feather River Hatchery.